We Need to Radically Rethink Conscious Awareness (by Charles M. Johnston M.D.)

Contribution by Charles M. Johnston, M.D.

Respected thinkers have lately been putting forward more dynamic explanations for the workings of conscious awareness. In each case, there is the claim that the picture presented is fundamentally new. In my book Creative Systems Theory: An Overarching Theory of Purpose, Change, and Interrelationships in Human SystemsI note how Creative Systems Theory put forward a particularly nuanced such explanation over forty years ago. Arguably this explanation goes beyond even the best of current interpretations.

Consciousness Awareness and the Free-Will-Versus-Determinism Debate

The book uses the free-will-versus determinism debate as a way in. As commonly conceived, it fundamentally challenges usual understanding. You would not be reading this article, and I would not have written it if we did not believe in free will in some form. Yet basic cause and effect, at least as classical science conceives of it, describes a deterministic world. Free will and determinism each seem self-evident, but limited to the assumptions of Modern Age thought they imply mutually exclusive realities.

The needed new picture follows from what Creative Systems Theory calls Integrative Meta-perspective, the kind of conceptual vantage that produces what the theory calls culturally mature understanding. Integrative Meta-perspective alters how we think about conscious awareness. It also makes possible a creative frame and how it changes our experience of determination.

I began my extended piece in the book by describing a television series in which physicist Stephen Hawking makes the standard classical science argument that free will is an illusion. I propose that while this conclusion follows logically from accepted assumptions, it really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. And I describe how familiar beliefs about free will just as much fail the test of considered reflection—at least reflection when made from the vantage of an Integrative Meta-perspective.

The simple fact that the free-will-versus-determinism debate takes the form of polarity at least suggests that a more systemically conceived picture should be possible. And the fact that we can understand positions in terms of polarity’s underlying symmetry and the kinds of intelligence that polar advocacies most draw on further supports this conclusion. Humanist and spiritual sorts are likely to emphasize freedom of will, while more scientific and behavioral types are apt to emphasize deterministic conclusions and give will diminished significance or dismiss it outright.

For these brief reflections, I will draw on a more specific polarity-related observation. A simple way to think about the free-will-versus-determinism debate and how it might be reconciled turns to the recognition that Modern Age beliefs about both will and determination have been directly tied to how we have viewed the relationship between mind and body. In modern times we’ve conceived of mind and body as separate. We’ve also seen each functioning according to basic rules of cause and effect. In this world, awareness is “captain of the cellular ship”—free and unfettered. And the body, as anatomy and physiology, functions according to basic engineering principles. Free will and determinism each have their own separate, rationally understandable realities.

Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes reveal a picture that is more of a whole, more expressly systemic. It is also a picture in which mind and body each come to function according to more dynamic principles. With Integrative Meta-perspective we come to appreciate that while awareness helps facilitate possibility, by itself it doesn’t determine it. And we leave behind thinking of the life of the body only in mechanistic terms. We find a more expressly creative reality all the way around, one that fundamentally alters the free-will-versus-determinism debate.

The fact that a larger reality might exist is more a part of our daily experience than we might imagine. Certainly this is true for conscious awareness. Few truths become more obvious when practicing the craft of the psychotherapist, for example, than how different the reality of conscious awarenessis from how the conscious mind tends to view itself. (Comic Emo Philips once quipped: “I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that.”) The fact that conscious awareness is limited in what it can grasp is exactly as it should be. Much of our functioning works best without volition’s interference. (Recall Kipling’s centipede who walks gracefully with its hundred legs until praised for her exquisite memory.)

I think of my own experience as a writer. Some of my best insights wake me up in the middle of the night. I also get a lot of my best ideas when on road trips, while driving through a mountain pass, or along the ocean. Insights often come unbidden. Sometimes they relate to topics that I had not before even considered. Certainly, they are not products of “will” as we conventionally think of it. And such experiences reveal conscious awareness to be a rather fleeting basis for identity. At the least, awareness comes and goes with sleeping and waking. But at various times, it can also provide very different views of reality.

The Life of the Body

In a similar way, a more systemic kind of understanding is coming to permeate the best of thinking about the body. As we learn more deeply about the complex workings of the endocrine system, for example, or about connections that exist between the gut and cognitive functioning, we find not a mechanical body, but a living body. And when we look more psychologically, we find a body that is in important ways intelligent.

A simple thought experiment helps make the result when we think more systemically about the body more concrete. Imagine a gifted running back in football making his way down the field, rapidly cutting this way and that. The running back’s cuts take place more quickly, and in ways that are more nuanced, than could ever happen by consciously choosing them one at a time. The conscious aspects of intelligence simply aren’t built to function that rapidly or complexly. Does this mean, then, that the running back is not choosing? And, more specifically, does it then mean that, because his body moves before he “chooses,” what we witness is nothing more than mechanical reflex following the rules of a deterministic world? Such interpretations leave us with a less than convincing picture. At the least they leave us with bothersome questions. Are the outcomes of games then predetermined—or, alternatively, perhaps random? Either way, we are left wondering why we would attend a football game—and perhaps feeling a bit duped. I think the problem lies with the fact that our explanations really don’t hold up. Clearly in the running back’s movements we witness something that is not just vital, but intelligent, and profoundly so.

Integrative Meta-Perspective

Integrative Meta-perspective provides a more conceptually demanding—but also ultimately simpler—interpretation when it comes to both conscious awareness and the life of the body. In the process, it also fundamentally alters how we understand both human will and the dynamics of determination.

With the recognition that the greater portion of our psychological functioning happens well outside of awareness, conscious awareness— and with it will—comes to have a new, at once more humble, and ultimately profound, role. Rather than willfully determining our actions, it serves as a facilitator and catalyst for intelligence’s richly creative workings. Integrative Meta-perspective reveals that while thinking of free will as free and willful in the unfettered sense implied by our Modern Age may once have benefitted us, today it gets in the way of fully appreciating choice’s ultimately more powerful and creative contribution.

With regard to the body, Integrative Meta-perspective in a similar way offers a more interesting and ultimately powerful picture. We come to see the body not as a separate deterministic machine, but as an integral part of who we are as living—and specifically human—beings. A creative frame makes this result more explicit. We recognize how body sensibilities represent a critical, multilayered aspect of intelligence’s larger workings. We also better appreciate the rich complexities of its contribution in those workings.

Creative Systems Theory proposes that the Modern Age free-will- versus-determinism debate has been a product of a developmentally appropriate, but systemically incomplete view of the world. It has been based on a falsely framed dichotomy, a juxtaposing of alternative determinisms that together have served to protect us—as polar explanations of every sort do—from life’s ultimately rich, but also easily overwhelming uncertainties and complexities.

Integrative Meta-perspective reveals that free will is not so free— nor as much ours to direct—as those of an individualistic bent might prefer. And neither is determination as predetermined as advocates of either a more scientific determinism or the determinisms of religious faith might wish. The more systemic picture that results makes outcomes less readily anticipated, but the particular way that it does also makes outcomes ultimately more significant. While we lose the order of one thing guaranteeing another, we get in exchange the more generative sort of order that makes existence vital. We get creative possibility, and as humans, the particular kind of creative possibility that makes us who we are.

We Need to Radically Rethink Conscious Awareness (by Charles M. Johnston M.D.)

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